But without some authority to declassify documents over the objection of other agencies, Aftergood says, the NDC “is simply a way of streamlining the status quo, and making existing declassification procedures run more smoothly. So instead of waiting three or five years for an unsatisfactory response or denial, now, with a National Declassification Center you might be able to get your denial in a year and a half. Is that progress? I don’t think it is.”
While a National Declassification Center draws support from many in the access community, others question the assumptions upon which the idea itself is based.
“It’s a highly inefficient model to believe that every agency needs to have a say in the declassification of specific records, even if they have an equity in it,” says Bill Leonard, who headed the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007. “The irony of it is that I was a big support of a National Declassification Center. I was really pushing for it. But quite frankly, that was in the Bush administration. And I was hoping in an Obama administration we’d actually move past that mindset where we’d actually need a National Declassification Center.“
An alternative, favored by Leonard and popular in the access community, would be to create a so-called “drop dead” date. Nearly all documents that were, say, twenty-five, thirty, or forty years old would be automatically declassified. Aftergood suggests that different agencies might have different drop dates to reflect the kinds of classified information they deal in. But no one expects the order to endorse a drop dead date.
Obama’s memo, after floating the idea of a National Declassification Center, goes on to mention restoring what the president describes as “the presumption against classification.” In 2003, George W. Bush removed instructions issued in Clinton’s executive order eight years before saying that if a classifier had “significant doubt” about whether a document should be classified, it should remain unclassified.
It’s not clear that this instruction made a difference. “I don’t think we saw any change whatsoever,” says Leonard. “Those are words without meaning.”
Others basically agree.
“I think certainly the presumption should be reversed, but I don’t think that’s going to make any difference,” says Fuchs. “It’s important rhetoric but in order to actually reduce classification, its necessary for there to be incentive and oversight built into the actual classification system, that will discourage unnecessary classification and will impose consequences such as retraining or improved training when unnecessary classification is identified.”
Still, slipping something akin to Clinton’s language back into the executive order has wide support, in part because it might be a way to signal the revisions’ intent.
“It speaks to tone, and tone is very important,” says Bosanko.
There’s another Bush era change to the executive order that went unmentioned in Obama’s May memo. In 1999, the Director of Central Intelligence argued that his—and therefore his agency’s—classification decisions were exempted from review by the ISCAP process. While the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel flatly disagreed with his legal argument, four years later the CIA was able to obtain a carve out from Bush allowing the intelligence chief to unilaterally overrule ISCAP. Since then, there have been two reported cases where the Director of National Intelligence has overruled a decision requiring release.
The potential that the intelligence community’s special powers at ISCAP could be left intact troubles Bill Leonard, who in his capacity as ISOO director served as ISCAP’s executive secretary at the time the change was made.
“It will be interesting to see if that’s rolled back. If even that’s not rolled back,” says Leonard, “then we’ll know that we truly are just tinkering around the edges.”
There’s good reason that so many questions about the classification order remain unanswered: it is being discussed behind closed doors. The drafting process has received virtually no media coverage, perhaps because the principals are none too eager to talk about recommendations that they are privately producing for the president. (The National Security Council, which is leading the discussion, did not respond to multiple requests from CJR for comment.)